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Public stays with Government on Covid measures – for now

Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll: Public willing to contemplate some further restrictions

This is a difficult poll for the Coalition, looking over its shoulder at the rise of Sinn Féin and under pressure from a deteriorating situation with the pandemic. But despite the reverses of recent weeks, with new restrictions introduced and a fear that more may follow, the Government still has the support of a strong majority of voters for its handling of the pandemic.

While the three Government parties will be disappointed with their ratings in today’s poll, the Covid numbers could be a lot worse. When those who don’t express a view are excluded, the figures show a two to one majority who have a benign view of the Government’s handling of the pandemic.

That’s a relatively strong position, and a marked contrast from early this year when confidence in the Coalition’s management of the crisis had tanked in the face of the third wave. But it shows a decline since October when nearly three-quarters of voters (74 per cent) approved of its handling. (The questions were slightly different. In an attempt to get voters to judge the Government’s overall handling of the crisis we asked “all in all” how its performance was rated)

Wriggle room

The numbers also give some guidance of the public’s view on questions that may face the Coalition in the coming weeks if the anticipated rise in cases due to the omicron variant takes hold. The findings suggest that the public appears willing to contemplate some further restrictions, giving Ministers some wriggle room to manage the emerging threat from the new variant. But that will only go so far; the public is strongly opposed to other possible restrictions.


The strongest opposition is to closing schools and colleges, which 72 per cent of respondents say that the Government should not even consider. Less than a quarter of people (23 per cent) say the Government should consider this option.

People are also strongly against stopping visits to nursing homes (71 per cent to 23 per cent). They don’t think the Government should close bars and restaurants (66 per cent), close gyms (58 per cent), ban attendance at sporting events (66 per cent) or close non-essential retail (67 per cent).

But this is not a blanket refusal to consider further restrictions: there is a willingness to consider other measures. “Limiting numbers in bars and restaurants over Christmas”, for instance, is something that 69 per cent of respondents believe the Government should consider. They are happy for children aged 9-12 to continue wearing masks after Christmas. Limiting household gatherings over Christmas has a narrow margin in favour of it (53 to 44 per cent).

Travel ban

Significantly, there is also a majority in favour of the Government considering a ban on international travel (54 per cent to 41 per cent) – something which the Taoiseach insists is not on the cards but which some political sources say may be proposed in the coming weeks.

So what is the picture of public opinion on Covid as the country braces for the potential spread of the omicron variant? It can be summed up in three parts. Public confidence in the Government to manage the pandemic is falling but still, on balance, the majority view. People have not switched off, or given up on the Coalition. Secondly, there is a willingness to consider – and likely to co-operate with – some further restrictions. But thirdly, there is a strong resistance to some measures, notably the closing of schools. So the Government has some room to manoeuvre. But not a whole lot.

Lead government

On party support trends, the numbers in today's Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll leave no room for doubt. Right now, Sinn Féin is blowing away its rivals. If present trends continue, at some stage in the first half of next year Sinn Féin will have more support than Fine Gael and Fianna Fail combined. At this juncture, the party is unquestionably on course to lead the next government.

The biggest question in Irish politics now is whether this is a locked-in trend that cannot change before the next election, or whether it is the mid-term weakness of a government and the popularity of opposition that we have seen before, and can therefore swing around in the three years or so before voters go to the polls again.

There is also the question of Sinn Féin's route to government – with Fianna Fáil, or other left-wing parties?

The answer probably lies somewhere between the two. It is clear that there has been structural change in Irish politics, with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil shrinking, and Sinn Féin emerging as the dominant opposition and mainstay of an alternative government. Further, those pressures that are driving the Sinn Féin surge – on housing, health, the cost of living – are unlikely to disappear. The more people perceive the government to be failing in these areas, the more Sinn Féin's message of change will appeal to them.

But we also live in an age of great political volatility, and this can work both ways. Sinn Féin might not always have it so easily politically, and a chunk of voters will want to know more about what change will actually mean for them.

There is also the question of Sinn Féin’s route to government – with Fianna Fáil, or other left-wing parties? The landscape in relation to all of these things has moved hugely in the 22 months or so since the last general election. We would be foolish to think that process will stop now.